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Volume 11, Issue 5: Recipio

The Rhythms of Hebrew

Ben Merkle

The Hebrew language, on the whole, is a poetic language. By poetic, I am not referring to just the book of Psalms and other passages that have a high degree of lyrical quality. Rather, the entire language, even in long sentences of prose, is chock full of a poetic structure adding incredible depth and meaning to every passage.

What exactly is meant by poetic might need some defining. Hebrew poetry bears little resemblance to the works of Donne, Herbert and Herrick. There is no meter, nor does it depend upon rhyme1. The poetry is “an elevated style, a harmony and parallelism of sentences, a sonorous flow of graphic words, an artificial arrangement of clauses, repetitions, transpositions, and rhetorical antitheses, which are the inmost life of poetry.”2 The poetry of Hebrew is a rhyming of ideas through the structure of a sentence or sentences.
This poetic structure in many places adds to the meaning of the text. In Jonah 1:3, the author uses an obvious chiasm3 to stress how Jonah’s action is a fleeing from the Lord that takes him

    ...to Tarshish, away from the face of the Lord
          down...
                ...to Tarshish
          down...
    ...to Tarshish, away from the face of the Lord.

And the chiasm communicates the rebellious nature of Jonah’s flight in a very vivid sense.
Normally, poetry cannot be translated from one language to another without losing the structure and feel of the original poem. For instance, while translating the prose of Pushkin, the great Russian poet, the translator laments that Pushkin’s real genius, his poetry, is inaccessible to us. “As a poet Pushkin is untranslatable: the exquisite beauty and the austere simplicity of his verse cannot be rendered into a foreign tongue. Every word of his poetry is so perfect in its context that it is impossible to replace it by any other.”4 Frequently, poetry in other languages is brought across into English prose, translating the essential gist of the words, but shedding the poetic structure that the piece originally wore. Bayard Taylor describes this effort. “To attempt to represent poetry in prose is very much like attempting to translate music into speech.”5
But Hebrew poetry, using neither rhyming nor meter, lends itself to translation in a way that few other languages can. For instance, the chiasm in Jonah 1:3 is easily reflected in English, because meter and rhyme are not necessary to preserve the poetry. The repetitions, the transpositions, and parallels that make up Hebrew poetry are all easily brought across into the English. However, our modern translations rarely seek to bring these nuances over. (The Jonah 1:3 chiasm is imperceptible in the NIV.)
Another aspect of Hebrew poetry given in the earlier quote is the “graphic words”. Hebrew is particularly fond of personification. The bad weather in the first chapter of Jonah doesn’t begin with “and a low pressure system on the north end of the sea brought on high winds and swells to thirty feet.” Rather the Lord “throws” a storm to the sea. (This throwing works in another chiasm opposite the sailors throwing Jonah to the sea.) When the storm starts getting really bad, it “comes and storms against them.” The overall picture is described graphically by the Hebrew, and frequently diluted in the English.
Hebrew also relies heavily on idioms that are ignored in their English translations. The word most often translated “anger” in Hebrew is actually an idiom referring to the heat of one’s nose. When God is angry it says that His “nose is hot”. A patient man is then one who has a long nose (it takes a long time for the heat to reach the rest of his face).
Perhaps this sounds as if I’m going a bit too far, but please wait, I’ve got a point to make. Hebrew uses these tools to teach us something. For instance, the Hebrew words for forward, backward, right and left, are all the same words for East, West, South, and North respectively. The Hebrew orientation is always to the East. These untranslated idioms have all sorts of implications, particularly when a passage is packed with typology. And, in a very nerve racking way, when one experiments with the idea that there is a significance to the East, the interpretations of men like James Jordan start to sound far less strange.
The idea of our Bibles bringing across this high-octane Hebraic sense remains a strange thought, but we have one of two options: do we let our language shape our Scripture or do we let Scripture shape our language? The chiasms, repetition, personification, and idioms of Hebrew are, in many passages, essential to understanding the point of the text. Ought these things to be brought across? This isn’t a question of making English into Hebrew (a translation will always be necessary), but rather one of letting Scripture mold our minds. And this isn’t the first time this question has been raised. The King James translators worked hard to preserve the rhythms of the Hebrew and also brought across many of the idioms. We often don’t notice that this was done, because the idioms that were brought across are now our idioms. The King James translation had a profound impact on the English language. In a sense they cut our minds into a Hebraic shape. But in our current quest for relevance and our desire to appease the pagans whose judgments we fear, we have abandoned these Hebraic roots. Instead of shaping our world with the pattern of Scripture, we have done the opposite. And, like the Ninevites, we no longer know our right from our left, our even which way is forward.

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